West Coast Cactus + Succulent Scene

Dean Karras – Gnosis Nursery

It's important to cultivate a strong moral compass and code of conduct. It's as simple as asking: how do the actions I take and the decisions I make impact the world around me?

Can you tell us a little about yourself and about your work?

My interest in plants began with ethnobotanically significant plants like Trichocereus, Nicotiana (tobacco), and Cannabis right around when I turned 19 in the fall of 2007. At the time I was very interested in shamanism, and more specifically the shamanic use of entheogens. Having first-hand experience gardening with sacred plants made me appreciate the growing aspect first and foremost, and at that point I really got hooked on growing all kinds of plants and experimenting with different soil blends, fertilizers, and propagation techniques. Some beginner’s luck early on growing cacti from seed made me appreciate in particular the virtues of growing plants from seed: the affordability of purchasing seed and viewing it as an investment, access to a wider range of species and varieties than otherwise available, preserving genetic diversity, digging for phenotypes and genotypes, and rolling the dice to discover crests, variegates, & other oddballs and outliers. It’s also an extremely rewarding journey to witness the growth of a plant from seed to flower and then harvesting seed and repeating the process.

How, why and when did Gnosis get started?

My professional work as a nurseryman is an outgrowth of my hobby 16+ year hobby of growing and collecting plants, especially cacti, succulents, and other xerophytic plants. It all culminated in October of 2017 when I joined my first Cactus & Succulent Society (Palomar), and the rest is history. I was already propagating more plants than I knew what to do with strictly for the fun of it, so when the opportunity to sell extra plants came along at a club-sponsored annual show and sale one short year later, I jumped on the opportunity. My girlfriend at the time was very encouraging of my passion working with plants, not to mention herself very green-thumbed and a huge help with my propagation efforts. Before long we had started a small business hustling cacti and succulents on the side, which really grew into a full-time gig running a brick and mortar garden center at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I had spend the previous few years working primarily in horticulture, from customer service at a local retail nursery to doing landscape install with a permaculture design company to working in a large-scale Cannabis greenhouse–all of which were instrumental in diversifying and deepening my knowledge working with plants and making professional connections in the horticulture world.

How did you decide on the name Gonisis for your nursery?

I studied Ancient Greek language and philosophy as an undergraduate. (Modern Greek wasn’t offered, so studying Ancient Greek was an opportunity for me to connect with my Greek heritage. It was also for fairly obvious reasons a great complimentary subject to my study of philosophy). The word “gnosis” is one of several Ancient Greek words that means “knowledge”–in fact, “knowledge” is a distant cognate with “gnosis” which is why they both share a silent first consonant and long “o” vowel gradation. In its most literal sense, “gnosis” is best translated as “experiential knowledge”, knowledge from firsthand experience. On an esoteric level, it implies knowledge of a spiritual or mystical sort. For me, that simply means communing with nature or finding connection to nature, which many of us in this community achieve with our various gardening and plant-care rituals. On a more literal and practical level, it implies that gardening is a “walking the path” sort of activity or experience: one can (and should) read books about plants, but to really engage in the hobby means playing in the dirt and getting some soil stuck underneath your fingernails. “Grow Thyself” is therefore a twist on the classic Socratic imperative to “Know Thyself”–self-knowledge and personal growth through gardening.

Turbinicarpus lophophorioides
Lophophora williamsii
Hechtia lanata

What are some of your favorite plants to grow?

Some of my favorite plants to grow are Bursera, Agave, Aloe, Haworthia, mesembs, and a wide variety of cacti, especially: Astrophytum, Echinocereus, Ferocactus, Trichocereus, and Turbinicarpus. Cacti were my first love in cultivated plants, and Cactaceae (the whole family) will always be my truest and deepest love. There are just too many genera to list to really give an exhaustive list of which ones I like to grow, not to mention lots of monotypic species.Dudleyas deserve mention as one of my favorites to observe in habitat, but truth be told, I don’t generally enjoy growing them since it can be difficult to grow them austerely enough – they tend to look floppy and overgrown with even a modest water and fertilizer regimen, or alternatively many of the more desertic species tend to rot out in the summer months even with infrequent water. Another genus I’m enamored by, but more drawn to wild observation than an itch to grow or collect are Nolinas. They are magnificent desert sentinels, many species of which grow into large, yucca-tree like stature with glaucus, shaggy leaves and an overall uncanny palm-tree-like vibe. But they are so glacially slow in cultivation and must be grown from seed so that only a few weirdos (like myself) bother to grow any of them at all. For whatever it’s worth, the tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten are the ones I’ve grown myself.

We know you are passionate about plant conservation (as everyone should be.) How does this passion come through in your work?

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, so I will try to be concise. I think the most important consideration is to cultivate in oneself a strong moral compass and code of conduct. It’s as simple as asking: how do the actions I take and the decisions I make impact the world around me? The Boy Scouts of America taught me well from a young age by reinforcing the “leave no trace” principle: when out in nature, “take only pictures, leave only footprints”.

In particular, I have been extremely vocal about calling out folks with poached (euphemistically “wild collected” or “field collected” plants), especially when they are glorified or mass-marketed on social media platforms like Instagram. The debate between legally and illegally collected plants is a moot point. It is the glorification of poached plants on social media that has been crucial in driving demand for those same plants. Copiapoas, Conophytums, and Pachypodiums are three obvious examples of genera whose populations have been hit hard by the illegal succulent trade.

The most frequent excuse I hear is that it’s the collectors in Asia who are to blame, which isn’t entirely false. But its like, look in the mirror: your actions aren’t beyond reproach if you choose to participate. The mentality that the damage has already been done once the plant has been removed from habitat misses the point of how supply and demand dictates value in this market and encourages more unethical extraction of plants for quick profit. And furthermore, for better and for worse, the whole world still looks to the USA and even more specifically Southern California for cues on showcasing or “staging” plants in nice ceramic pots. We created that culture here, and it continues to be exported around the world in digital form on social media. The would-be role models such as the Cactus and Succulent Society of America have continuously failed us in this regard by refusing to self-police those intimately connected with the organization by turning a blind eye to their own members’ bad faith behavior in trafficking poached plants. To be fair, there are some exemplary individuals involved in the CSSA who I commend and have been working to secure meaningful changes for the best. I sincerely laud their efforts. But the organization as a whole and its leadership have consistently disappointed me by not doing more. Intrinsic to the problem is that they don’t want to reconcile with their past, a past where field-collecting specimens was not only acceptable, it was something that the cactus clubs would participate in together in their club field expeditions. Until they reconcile with this problematic past in a transparent way, they will be doomed to repeat it.

This is unfortunately an inevitable consequence of participating in a marketplace that emphasizes rarity (read: scarcity) as a function of value. It’s ok to like rare plants, but it’s also the fetishization of rarity that is sometimes inherently problematic. I’ve overheard growers justify purchasing poached plants to use as “stock plants” for seed production so they can counteract poaching by producing seed-grown specimens of those same plants, as if the ends somehow morally justify the means. (It is this exact mindset that has lead newly discovered species like Astrophytum caput-medusae to be driven to the brink of extinction within about 20 years of its discovery). I think that when the debate focuses on whether or not a specific plant population or species is large and robust enough to tolerate the removal of a few plants, it’s also missing the point. The plants in question are never the isolated units we tend to conceptualize them as. That mindset overlooks their ecological significance. The flowering dudleya you’re looking at is also providing nectar to countless hummingbirds, in turn providing genetic diversity to its population, stabilizing the hillside from erosion with its roots, as well as interacting symbiotically with the Selaginella (spike moss) it’s growing on.

So I think the bottom line is shun poached plants and the people that conspicuously display them. If you engage in the hobby of collecting rare plants, please do your homework on recognizing poached plants and vet your sources before making questionable purchases. We should also of course consider ways we can preserve habitat and minimize other factors having adverse effects on wild plant populations like climate change and habitat loss, notably caused by burning fossil fuels and the expansion of ranching land for cattle driven by consumption of meat. However, poaching and habitat loss are hand-in-hand contributing forces in driving cactus and succulent species to extinction in the wild, and we should not underestimate the devastating impacts poaching is continuing to have on wild plant populations.

Agave montana
Trichocereus fulvilanus
Hoodia gordonii

What's in the near future for you and Gnosis?

In the last year and a half I’ve actually taken a step back from running the nursery as my full time job and this fall will return to teaching secondary math. Running a retail space for three and a half years was an incredible privilege and dream of mine, and it has been an unforgettable journey for me. However, the demands of running a small brick-and-mortar business in a rural area was unsustainable and ultimately lead to me suffering from severe burnout. Somewhat ironically, running a plant business also took me further and further away from my beloved propagation work–too many plants (and seeds), too little time! In short, I suffered from lack of focus, and downshifting from doing the nursery thing full time has given me more clarity and focus than I’ve had in years. With that, I ask you all to look forward to Gnosis 2.0, a personal vision that will manifest publicly when the time is right. In the meantime, catch me at your local cactus club meetings, slinging plants at pop-ups, and sharing my field explorations of Baja and beyond at various talks and on my instagram.